ON DIFFICULT ALBUMS…
I’ve always been fascinated by the difficult albums by bands I like. I’m not talking about bad albums—bad albums are cynically or lazily made, but difficult albums are the products of difficult situations—Records where the pieces didn’t fall into place as easily for the artist as their other recordings. The possible circumstances are many: record company pressures, intra-band conflicts, road weariness, simple writer’s block, and so on. Often commercial failures, these records and are typically only appreciated by a cult of the artists’ hard core fans… or very few at all. Sometimes even the artists disown them.
As a songwriter who’s in the game largely for the craft of making records, I find that these difficult albums provide fascinating and valuable windows into the process of record-making—often moreso than classic albums that seemingly came out of the womb perfectly-formed. Difficult albums can reveal poorly-made choices or shaky ideas fleshed out in desperation. But Instead of standing in harsh judgement of these faults, a fellow musician realizes that many of these “mistakes” were courageous decisions. These are the decisions we have to make in order to get our work done. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose and sometime it’s unclear—but you have to make those calls.
In this blog entry, I’ve decided to take an in-depth look at one such particular album that has fascinated me for years: 1986’s Bouncing Off the Satellites by the B-52’s. Luckily, I’ve been given an insider’s view by B-52’s guitarist/composer Keith Strickland who was kind enough to correspond with me and answer my many questions.
The first rock music I ever listened to consistently was the B-52’s. I was given the cassette of Cosmic Thing by my sister in 1990—I was 12 years old and fell into it big time, and, just like that, I was a rock music fan. As a kid more interested in art than sports, and one who definitely did not feel like part of the cool group at school, it resonated to hear the B’s sing, “Don’t you listen to what they say, cause we’re a little different anyway. Ain’t it the truth?” Yep.
At the time, the band was riding high on the success of “Love Shack” and “Roam.” Cosmic Thing would end up going triple platinum, and “Love Shack” would cement itself as a perennial dance/wedding reception classic. Four years earlier, however, the situation was very different for the B-52’s. They’d released their fifth album, Bouncing off the Satellites, to little attention commercially or critically. More importantly, in the interim between the recording and release of the album, they’d lost their guitarist and founding member Ricky Wilson to AIDS. The band was heartbroken and unsure if they could go on.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE EARLY B-52’S
From Athens, Georgia, via New York City, The B-52’s burst onto the American New Wave scene with their 1979 self-titled debut which included the dance classic, “Rock Lobster.” Their sound was truly unique: crunchy rhythm guitar on top of big beat drums punctuated by campy organ; two female voices: one smoky and soulful, the other clear and bright, who answered the frenetic pleadings of the mustachioed male M.C. They presented themselves clothed in the vivid colors of thrift store chic. The band consisted of Ricky Wilson on guitar, his younger sister Cindy Wilson on vocals, Kate Pierson on vocals and keyboards, Fred Schneider on vocals, and Keith Strickland on drums. Their second album, 1980’s Wild Planet, featuring “Private Idaho” and “Give Me Back My Man” kept the ball rolling with more of the same delightful mix.
Like any young band in the middle strata of popular rock artists in the early eighties, they toured constantly in America, Europe, and Australia. And when they were off the road, the band also lived together in a large house in Mahopac, NY, north of the city.¹ By 1981, the band was being pressured by their manager, Gary Kurfirst, and their label, Warner Bros., to record their third album. Having used up their fledgling burst of songwriting on the first two albums, the band was only able to manage a 6-song mini-album, Mesopotamia, produced by David Byrne, which was released in early 1982. The songwriting was erratic and the production was predictably layered with the polyrhythms Byrne was known for in the Talking Heads. In his review of the album in Rolling Stone, Parke Puterbaugh knocked the band for “making records that overreach their modest abilities.” Poor reviews and sales (the album peaked at #35 on the Billboard charts) aside, the band kept plugging on the road, including a stop at the iconic US Festival in 1982.
In 1983, the band recorded and released their fourth album, Whammy! This record incorporated synthesizers and drum machines into the band’s sound. The album sold better than Mesopotamia and was a more solid effort all-around, but it was not the breakthrough album the band might have hoped. The two singles from the album did little on the charts and their live set lists still relied largely on material from the first two albums. As the band finished touring for Whammy! at the end of 1983, it seemed the band had plateaued commercially and artistically. As band friend John Martin Taylor wrote in his fantastic blog about his friendship with the band, “there were both spoken and unspoken tensions from having lived and worked together all those years.”
THE B-52’S SONGWRITING PROCESS
Unlike the cliche of the tortured songwriter sitting alone in his/her room composing and subsequently bringing finished songs to their band, most of the B-52’s songs of this era were developed through a collective jamming-method of songwriting. “Without editing, self-consciousness, or control, we sang and played and wailed our heads off (sometimes all at once). And then we molded the songs from the essence of those jams,” said Kate.¹ Keith described the honing down of spontaneous ideas as “turning jazz into rock and roll.”* Keith and Ricky were best friends and musical collaborators since high school in Athens, GA, and this duo generally composed the base instrumental tracks, on top of which the vocalists would improvise their parts. While Keith mostly played drums on stage, at home and in the studio he could also be found playing bass, guitar, and keyboards. Ricky also frequently swapped instruments. Keith: “When Ricky and I started playing music together, he would sometimes play bass guitar and I would play guitar, we were always changing it up.”
BEGINNING THE ALBUM
In 1984, the band took a break following the Whammy! tour. Fred Schneider used this time to record a solo album, Fred Schneider & The Shake Society, released on Warner Bros. Records. The album did little commercially, but the video for the single “Monster” is a fun watch. In January 1985, the band regrouped to perform before a massive audience at Rock in Rio. Although no one knew it at the time, these shows would turn out to be Ricky’s last.
As the band began to write songs for their fifth album, Keith says, “It felt like the group was disintegrating. Most of our communication with each other was being filtered through our manager at the time, which we now know, was not a very smart idea. He distorted many things said, and made the situation much worse. We really just needed a break from each other, but we were under pressure to record a new album. We already had several tracks that were written together through our jamming process, then Ricky suggested we finish the album by writing songs separately. Ricky, Cindy and myself were writing together, so that left Kate and Fred to each write a song. Sadly, at that time, that seemed to be our only option.” Ultimately, four songs were written by the full band, four more by various factions of the group, and one each by Fred and Kate.
When it came time for the band to pick a producer, Keith recommended Englishman Tony Mansfield. Keith was impressed by Mansfield’s work on British singer Captain Sensible’s 1984 record, The Power of Love, especially the single “Glad It’s All Over.” Mansfield had been the leader of a new wave/electronic band, New Musik, which had several UK hits in 1979-1980. He also had a great deal of experience in production, where he is best known for Naked Eyes’ “Always Something There To Remind Me” in 1983 and the original version of A Ha’s “Take On Me” in 1984. Keith says, “Ricky and I were both interested in experimenting with new sounds,” and Mansfield seemed just the guy to help them get them. He was an ardent user of synthesizers, especially the Fairlight CMI, which was, at the time, a state-of-the-art digital music workstation. With Mansfield at the helm, the band spent July 1985 in Sigma Sound Studios in New York City recording what would become Bouncing off the Satellites.
A BRIEF DIVERSION ON THE FAIRLIGHT CMI
Often called, “the sound of the 80’s,” the Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument) was a state-of-the-art digital synthesizer, sampler, and sequencer. Introduced in 1979, it was the first commercially-available sampler. Sampling, as it came to be known, is the recording of an analog sound into digital memory, allowing the sound to be played back on a keyboard or programmed to play in patterns with a sequencer (like drums). Artists like Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Herbie Hancock, Duran Duran and Stevie Wonder were some of the first to adopt the Fairlight’s ability to not only sample sounds but to then manipulate them further into new and unique sounds. This high technology came at a high cost—a Fairlight CMI Series IIx, released in 1983, cost £27,000, or around $44,000—that’s more than a $100,000 in today’s dollars. This for computing power that is now outmatched by a typical smart phone.
Sampling in the era of the Fairlight was low-resolution by today’s standards. The sample rate was 8-bit, half of the 16-bit rate of a compact disc. To illustrate the quality of these early samples, picture a sound and then imagine that same sound being played back on a small cassette boom box. On Satellites, this is best illustrated by listening to the snare drum sound on many of the tracks, especially “Detour Through Your Mind.” To mask these lower-fidelity sounds, many engineers of the time applied heavy amounts of reverb to these samples to smooth out imperfections.
As in “Detour,” the most prominent use of the Fairlight on Satellites was the programming of the drums on all ten tracks. Regarding this now, Keith says, “In retrospect, I would not have used it in place of live drums. I think the drums sound stiff and monotonous.” Nowadays, modern drum programming software allows users to program in virtual “humanity” which adds slight imperfections in tempo and variations in timbre. This technology didn’t exist in 1985, hence the mechanistic feel of many of the drum tracks on Satellites. Even though the drum sounds were samples of real drums, they don’t have the feel of a real drummer playing them.
RICKY WILSON, AIDS, AND REJECTION BY THE LABEL
The fact that the band was burnt-out and not working well would unfortunately not be the only cloud hanging over the Satellites project, nor the worst. During pre-production of the record, Ricky Wilson was diagnosed with AIDS. He was one of around 10,000 Americans who had contracted the disease by mid-1985.² It is difficult to imagine today, but in mid-1985, President Ronald Reagan had not yet mentioned the term AIDS publicly, the term “HIV” had yet to be coined, and AIDS was still invariably fatal. In the United States, the disease was still largely limited to gay men in large urban centers such as San Fransisco, Los Angeles, and New York. Ricky was one of these men. Of the time, Keith mentions: “There was a lot of fear around it and a lot of ignorance. People just didn’t know. What is this? How do you get it?”* As the B’s were recording Satellites in July 1985, the first celebrity case of AIDS was announced to the world on the 23rd of that month—that of actor Rock Hudson.² Unfortunately, it took a celebrity contracting the disease to begin bringing awareness of the disease (and its great need for research funding) to mainstream America.
Ricky revealed his terminal diagnosis only to his best friend Keith. The other band members, including his sister Cindy, were unaware. Keith: “Ricky was very protective, particularly of Cindy and of his family” due to the fear and ignorance about AIDS at the time.4 “Ricky’s health was still good during the writing, recording and mixing of the album […and] recording the album was a nice distraction.” In his excellent Rolling Stone article from 1990, Michael Azerrad wrote: “Intensely private, [Ricky] denied anything was wrong. ‘I wasn’t aware of what was happening,’ says Fred Schneider, who had known Wilson since 1972. ‘I thought that he’d been so nervous – we were under such pressure, he was losing weight.'”³
After recording and mixing what would become Satellites, the band presented their finished mixes to Warner Bros., only to find that, in the words of Tom Petty, “their A&R man said I don’t hear a single.” Keith recalls, “the five of us started jamming together again, trying our best to pull together again and write a single… which is an impossible task, really. It was during this time that Ricky’s health began to fail very quickly.”
In early October 1985, Ricky was admitted to Memorial Sloane Kettering Hospital in NYC. When Cindy finally learned of her brother’s diagnosis, he had already fallen into a coma.6 “I didn’t even get to say goodbye to him,” she later said.* He died surrounded by his parents, sister Cindy, and his best friend Keith on October 12, 1985. “He was fine one week, and then the next week I found out that he was gone,” recalled Fred.³ Officially, the cause of death was given as lymphatic cancer.4
Cindy told Rolling Stone in 1990, “I adored my brother. He was more than a brother – he was a mentor. He was the coolest person alive. He had the greatest sense of humor and uniqueness about him. He really had a vision about him.”³ Later, she recalled, “When he passed away my whole world was rocked. I was devastated. And as a group, none of us could really imagine continuing on without him.”¹
Following Ricky’s death, the bereaved band took a step back from the music business. Keith moved from New York City upstate to Woodstock. The band was unsure if the Satellites album would ever see the light of day, and touring in the wake of Ricky’s death was out of the question for the band. In 1990, Kate told Q magazine:
“We just felt we couldn’t, musically, emotionally or spiritually. It would be a wrong thing to go out and be joyous without Ricky. There was a lot of pressure to get another guitarist and just go out to promote the album, but we made an out-and-out stand. We just stopped and had a breathing period which we had to go through. We felt maybe this was the natural end of the band, or maybe we’ll keep going. But we never said one way or the other. I’m sure that to the record company it did look like the end, so they just put the album out and didn’t really promote it, just to see what happened.”³
Since the band was in no place to write a new single, a compromise was reached where Warner Bros. gave the intended singles “Summer of Love” and “Girl from Ipanema Goes to Greenland” to record producer Shep Pettibone to remix.5 Shep was the go-to remixer of the 1980’s. Some of his credits include remixing all of the songs on Madonna’s Immaculate Collection, producing her Erotica album, and mixing and production on George Michael’s Faith. Pettibone’s results were dramatic, and I’ll discuss them below.
BOUNCING OFF THE SATELLITES: TRACK BY TRACK
SUMMER OF LOVE (Original Unreleased Mix)
The original Tony Mansfield/band-approved mix of “Summer of Love” was not publicly released until 1998 on the compilation Time Capsule: Songs for a Future Generation, but this was the band’s intended mix for the album. The differences between this and the remixed album version are significant: The original is based on two rhythm guitar parts, both of which are used only sparingly in the remixed version. This version also contains a psychedelic outro where the song descends into a wash of music boxes, vocals, and other ambient sounds. Overall, this version simply sounds much more like a rock band performance, and this is the arrangement the band has played live through the years.
1. SUMMER OF LOVE
The big hit that never was. Metallic synths and tinky percussion take the lead immediately in a nearly minute-long instrumental introduction. As none of this instrumentation was present on the original mix, we can only assume it was added by or at the behest of remixer Pettibone. Only at :46 do we hear Ricky Wilson’s guitar, and then only sporadically. Thankfully, Kate and Cindy’s fantastic unison vocal is only minimally tinkered with. A highlight of the lyrics of this mystical journey is the perfect summer image of “orange popsicles and lemonade.” Like it or hate it, Shep Pettibone’s production adds a dynamic range to the song that the original didn’t have—pulling back the instrumentation on the verses and then letting loose with brass-like synth on the chorus. It was radio-ready and of the times. But it wasn’t what the band had intended. Keith: “I was not happy with the remix, mostly because I was so happy with the original mix. Shep took out everything I liked about the original mix. We had no input on the remix, which was a very odd. I also thought it sounded too much like a Madonna track.” Likely hoping for a Madonna-type-hit, Warner Bros. released the single two months ahead of the release of the album.5 “Summer of Love” was, according to Keith, “getting good airplay on several big radio stations in California. We had supporters working at Warner Bros. who were really trying to get the label to push the single more.” Ultimately, though, “the label dropped the ball.” The single peaked at #3 on the Billboard dance charts in September 1986 but did not crack the Hot 100.
2. GIRL FROM IPANEMA GOES TO GREENLAND
The second single from the album was also remixed by Shep Pettibone, but was not as drastically recast as “Summer of Love.” The song is based on a tight, driving groove between the drums, bass, and Ricky’s clean-toned rhythm guitar (think “Beat It”). Keith’s syncopated and constantly moving bass keeps the track on its toes. The characteristic Fairlight breathy synths provide atmosphere. Cindy delivers a powerful vocal, though it is washed/drenched in a heavy soup of digital effects. It’s very possible that the same vocal performance is used over and over for each repeat of the chorus…it’s hard to make out any difference. Like “Summer of Love,” the song is a journey through a metaphysical place. Perhaps learning their lesson from “Summer of Love”‘s low chart performance, a video was made for “Ipanema.” Illustrating the song’s ethereal space, the video features rich color-tinted landscapes, animation, and a bleach-blonde Fred Schneider mugging in a unitard. Touchingly, the late Ricky Wilson, who had died before the making of the video, was included as the “moon in her mirror” at 1:51. Unfortunately, even with the video behind it, “Ipanema” did not chart as well as “Summer of Love,” only reaching #10 on the Billboard Dance Charts and also not cracking the Hot 100.
Kate’s “solo” contribution to the record was a co-write between her and her then-partner, artist and teacher Tim Rollins, who also plays guitar on the track. Also on guitar was Mark Mazur from King Creole and the Coconuts. Envisioned by Kate as an R&B-style song, the Fairlight-based production was not up to the task, particularly the fake horns. “I really, really wanted that song to be kind of like a funk, done with a real band. But when we went into the studio with Tony Mansfield I was disappointed he had the [Fairlight]. I really hated that thing,” said Kate.5 Production disappointments aside, the team did manage to achieve a strong and peppy pop track with more than a little satisfying dry humor: “I don’t need a man to treat me mean, I need a man to help me clean.” Of the B-52’s, only Kate and Keith appear on the track. It’s easy to imagine Cindy being incorporated into the track, had the band been communicating better (just as Kate could have fit in on “Ipanema”).
4. DETOUR THROUGH YOUR MIND
Illustrating the band’s fractured nature at the time, we have to get to the fourth track of the record to hear Fred’s vocals or a song co-written by the entire band. Returning to the psychedelic themes of the first two tracks but taking it to the nth degree, Fred says, “It was a ridiculous idea for a psychedelic rap…sort of a parody of mind-trip records.”5 And what a trip it is—the track takes full advantage of the Fairlight’s sampling and synthesizing capabilities with layers of ambient conversation, harps, chimes, and spacey sounds to create the trippy atmosphere. This was set on top of a groove built on Ricky’s driving fuzz-bass line. Keith shows his already considerable guitar chops on his solo at 2:01. At the forefront of the track is Fred’s matter-of-fact recitation of the far-out lyric. The cherry on top is the obligatory backwards vocal, completing any self-respecting psychedelic record.
“Wig” bursts from the ether with Fred’s exclamation, “WHAT’S THAT ON YOUR HEAD?” By far the most exuberant track on the album, “Wig” almost seems out of place. Perhaps not surprisingly then, according to Kate, Wig was an “old idea we had,” which was finished for Satellites.* This ode to the B-52’s’ namesake hairdos was built on a groove consisting of Ricky on bass, Keith on table guitar, faux brushed-drums, and a synth-tom groove (isolated at 2:43-2:50). I asked Keith what a “table guitar” was: “an electric guitar that I played un-amplified with it lying on a wooden table, so that it would resonate just enough to hear the chord changes, but mostly the rhythmic sound of the guitar pick over the strings. Then we mixed that with an amped electric guitar playing the same part.” We can probably thank the Fairlight for Kate’s super high notes, a C7 and D7, first heard at 3:20. Overall, it’s a delight to hear the band sounding like they are having a good time together, especially in the “joke” breaks. “Wig” was released as a single in Great Britain in 1987, peaking at #79, and was mimed on several television programs there (here and here) in some of the few Satellites promotional appearances by the band.
6. THEME FROM A NUDE BEACH
Side two’s opener delivers as advertised: a musical soundscape of a mythical nude beach. The album’s third full-band composition is relatively lightweight musically and lyrically, however, compared with the album’s other journeys to mythical places. Overall, the campy dialogue falls flat with little lyrical substance beneath it. The track is built on a four-on-the-floor bass drum and a variety of percussion for a pastiche of an calypso/island rhythm. Using the Fairlight, Kate’s voice was sampled to create the cuica sound first heard at 1:06. Ricky’s bass line is funky with its McCartney-esque octave leaps—it really pops out at the bridge beginning at 2:22.
7. AIN’T IT A SHAME
One of the highlights and lowlights of the album, “Ain’t It A Shame” occupies musical territory never before or since tread upon by the B-52’s: a country-twinged torch song. Cindy puts forth a memorable and passionate vocal, full of the loss and resignation felt by the narrator. Cindy: “This was supposed to be a spoof on country songs. I was putting aliens in it and all these flying saucers but yet trying to keep the flavor of the country; putting trailer parks and all that imagery in it; color TV’s, jacked up cars, making it a tender sad song.”5 Unfortunately, the instrumental track, while admittedly achieving a gloomy atmosphere, veers waaayyy too far into easy listening, FM-lite territory. The worst culprits are the Fairlight’s unconvincing brushed drums, clave hits (first at :01), oboe(?) sound, string sound, and a variety of soft, breathy synth pads. It’s a shame (pun intended), because the harmonica, muted guitars, and sound effects snippets are actually pretty nice. Like “Housework,” it’s easy to imagine this track being done better with a full band. Picking up on the potential of the song, Sinead O’Connor did an excellent cover of the song on her 2003 album, She Who Dwells in the Secret Place of the Most High Shall Abide Under the Shadow of the Almighty. Another version worth checking out is Cindy performing the song in a more straight-ahead rock style with the Glenn Phillips Band in 2014.
8. JUICY JUNGLE
For Fred’s solo song (he is the only B-52 to appear on the track), he teamed up again with John Coté, his main musical collaborator on Fred Schneider & The Shake Society. Unlike the mostly dance-oriented material on Fred’s solo album, however, “Juicy Jungle” is a driving rocker. For those who wanted to hear a traditional distorted lead guitar part on a B-52’s song, this is your chance! Fred’s mostly-spoken vocal laments the destruction of the Amazon rain forests, a topic du jour of 1985. The organ-ish sound combined with Fred’s simplistic lyric gives the track an overall juvenile feel. The B’s would go on to record much more incisive political songs.
In many ways, the fourth and final full-band-composed track is the most conventional B-52’s song on the album, featuring: a Ricky open-tuned rhythm guitar, a nontraditional song structure derived from a jam session, a straight 4/4 drum part, alternating vocals between Fred and Kate & Cindy, and an organ in the chorus. A sitar-guitar adds color to the song, including the Beatle-esqe drone during the outro. Keith says, “It’s ironic that the song ‘Communicate’ is on Bouncing Off The Satellites. ;-).” Indeed, if only the band had taken more of their own advice! The Channel 17 referred to in the song is the Atlanta UHF station that later became TBS.
10. SHE BRAKES FOR RAINBOWS
On a personal level, I’ve always considered this song to be a requiem of sorts for Ricky Wilson. This wasn’t intended, of course, as Ricky co-wrote and recorded the song with his bandmates before his death, but the sunny-but-mysterious, almost ghostly tone seems to speak to that in the hindsight of his death. The track opens with a Hawaiian-sounding delayed synth and continues into a wash of numerous synth parts. Indeed, the only non-synth instrument is Keith’s bass guitar (and possibly some more “table guitar”—listen closely in the choruses). While some of the lyrics are a bit hokey, “window in the weather” is one of the finest lyrical images on the record. Keith pointed out “Rainbows” as one of his favorites on the record, adding, “It’s the only song Ricky and I wrote completely ourselves (lyric included) that’s been recorded, and I love Cindy’s vocal performance. The song was inspired by a woman Ricky and I met in Santa Fe, New Mexico who was selling vegetarian tacos from a food cart decorated with wind chimes, prisms and flowers, and a sticker that read, ‘I brake for rainbows’. Musically we were going for a kind of innocent, ‘60s sunshine pop, movie theme song, vibe. It’s a little camp, tongue in cheek, yet still very pretty and heartfelt.”
FINALLY, THE ALBUM IS RELEASED
Bouncing off the Satellites was released in the U.S. in September 1986. Island Records, the band’s European label, decided to wait even longer, until July 1987, a full two years after the album was recorded. In the interim, Island had re-released “Rock Lobster” in Europe, which became a #12 hit in Great Britain in May 1986. Band promotion for Satellites was limited to the “Girl From Ipanema” video, some club appearances,5 and a short promotional tour of the UK in 1987. In the U.S., the album peaked at #85 on the Billboard charts, by far the lowest charting of their career; in Great Britain, the album peaked at #79 and remained in the top 100 for only two weeks. Rolling Stone did not review the album. Spin did, but declared the album, “clean, well-mannered and dull.” In 1990, Azerrad concluded in Rolling Stone: “Two years in the making, Bouncing off the Satellites had been the B-52’s most expensive album to record, and with little royalty money coming in and no chance of a tour, the band fell into financial straits.’We really had to tighten our belts,’ Schneider said. ‘We were just barely staying afloat, living off our catalog.'”
Where does a band go after a difficult album…when their hard work is not appreciated commercially or critically? For the B-52’s, they retreated to their respective homes, unsure if the band would continue. Tumult and tragedy has a way of bringing forth new perspectives, however, and slowly the group came back together starting in late 1987. Keith: “I began writing music again. It was one of the ways to process that sadness I felt. I was primarily writing on guitar, and I would often imagine Ricky sitting across from me playing, the way we always had.”* Coming to grips with losing one of their own seemed to be an outlet which allowed the band to communicate better. “After Ricky died in ’85, we realized what we have is precious and we’ve tried to preserve that ever since,” said Kate.* Keith notes, “We were a different band, but we had become closer than ever, and found a lot of comfort in each other. We would spend hours just talking; there was a deep connection we were making personally, and you go in and out of that as a band.”*
Reflecting on Satellites, Keith says, “I think musically Ricky and I were beginning to find new and exciting creative ground and confidence in our song writing together.” Sadly, Keith had to continue in that new creative vein on his own, but he did it with great success. Satellites’ follow-up, 1989’s Cosmic Thing was a musical and artistic smash. Growing out of the new sounds of “Summer of Love,” “Girl from Ipanema,” and “She Brakes for Rainbows,” to name a few, Keith’s musical beds on Cosmic Thing provided the singers the fertile ground they needed to express themselves with more serious political themes and bittersweet remembrances, as well as their traditional party ethos. Learning from Satellites, the band also wisely returned to a live rhythm section, but the synths remained, now deftly woven in for texture and atmosphere. Ultimately, with Cosmic Thing, the band had achieved an album that could proudly stand alongside their first two as a classic.
Cosmic Thing is the happy ending to the Bouncing off the Satellites story, but if Satellites had it been the band’s last album, it would still be very fascinating—and sometimes very compelling— listening. It’s a record of a band wading though tough times, grasping in many directions for the creative path they would ultimately take forward—trying a new producer, new technologies, new musical genres, and new methods of writing. Had “Summer of Love” or “Girl From Ipanema” become big hits, they would have been well-deserved, as they were adventurous stabs into new pop territory for the band. Satellites is also the last work of a great musician, Ricky Wilson. I consider the album a great illustration of the creative process at work, even if it would take another album to ultimately get where they were going.
• Keith Strickland quotes not otherwise credited come from my correspondence with him during May 2015. Thank you, Keith.
1. Nude on the Moon: The B-52’s Anthology Liner Notes by Michael Azerrad, Rhino Records, 2002